It’s been a cloudy rainy week here in the great Pacific Northwest.  I need some sunshine!  It lifts our mood and makes the flowers bloom.  Your projects need sunshine, too.

Your project is most likely part of something greater, part of an organization, a contributor to its business objectives.  Do you understand that connection and how you are dependent on it?  I think that every project’s success depends on the support it gets from its owning organization.  Part of finding what can go right on a project is to describe the ideal amount of support that you need.  Support from the organization, like sunshine on flowers, grows successful projects.  The better you understand the support needed, the more likely you are to deliver a successful project. 

One way to think about factors supporting project success is to consider adding a new plant to your garden.  Sometimes I’ll see a great new plant and think how good it would look here and there around our big yard.  My wife says to buy at least three and spread them around to see where they will do best.  She’s right.  While we can control to some extent the water, soil, and nutrients the plant gets; we can’t control the sunshine.  The sunshine ultimately forms the plant’s microclimate.  Too much or too little sunshine and you get an unhealthy plant.  The problem with projects is that you can’t buy three and spread them around.  When we plant a project, we have to get it the support it needs.  

Lots of the project success (or failure) factors you read about – executive sponsor support, user involvement, clear business objectives and requirements – can be largely dependent on support from the organization outside of the control of the project manager.  They are the sunshine the project needs to grow and bear fruit.  You may assume you have enough support or the project wouldn’t be happening.  At your peril.

I find the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) to be a complete reference for the project manager, but not for the organization that wants to support its projects.  It’s mostly about how to manage a project, not how it needs to be supported by its owner.  The PMBOK is organized into nine knowledge areas over which the project manager has control.  It covers processes to manage scope, control costs, schedule work, manage risks, improve quality, ensure communications, procure resources, and organize people.  Reflecting good project management, the scope of the PMBOK is controlled.  It’s primarily about things that the project manager does to plan, organize, direct, and control the project.

The PMBOK does spend a little time on factors that support the project.  The introduction to the nine knowledge areas and the first knowledge area – integration management – put the project in context with the organization.  They include bits on the selection of the project, the structure of the owning organization, and how the project exists to meet an organizational objective.  The PMBOK seems to expect project support factors to be sufficient at the outset.  The project support factors are inputs that are documented as parts of the project charter created during initiation as part of integration management.  They are seen by the PMBOK as “facts” like the business objectives and benefits expected of the project, the schedule and budget, and the description of how decisions are escalated when needed.  These project support factors are covered in a few paragraphs in the PMBOK.  The rest of the PMBOK is about what the project manager can control.  So, the factors outside the project that it needs to be successful, its sunshine, are often overshadowed in the mind of the project manager by the need to organize, direct, and control.

Don’t let the project support factors get lost as you move past the project charter.  They can often be the most important factors to the success of your project.  In my project consulting work, I often have to evaluate a project just starting up or in flight.  My evaluation includes these project support factors:

  • Clear shared vision of the project’s outcome and expected benefits that is expressed consistently by the organization’s leaders
  • Governance that provides timely, complete, flexible, and consistent decision making in support of the project, and of all the organization’s projects
  • Organizational capacity that is sufficient to support the work of the project in context with its operational work and the other projects underway
  • Organizational synergy that is characterized by all parts of the organization working together to support the project
  • Sustainability that is considered in the project’s scope of work so that the project’s outcome includes delivering benefits for the full expected life
  • Business and technical skills that are available and sufficient to support the nature of the work of the project, the change expected by the organization, and the management of the people and vendors involved.

Some to all of these project support factors will influence the success of your project.  As the project manager, you need to find and act on the unmet project support factors. Part of finding what can go right on a project is to describe the ideal amount of support that you need.  Collaborate with your project’s owners to assess the level of support at startup.  If you detect missing support factors, consider what support factors need to change for things to go right on the project.   Fortunately, project support factors aren’t (usually) as unyielding as the sunshine available to a garden spot. Your project’s owners might be able to get you the sunshine you need.  If there’s not enough organizational sunshine to light up all the projects that need to grow, they can shine more or grow less.  As the project manager, your job isn’t to make the sunshine, it’s to point out where it’s missing and how much you need.

I hope this idea and some of the project success factors suggested will help you bask in sunshine.  The sun just came out; I’m headed outside.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012

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